Monday, January 16, 2017

He Knows Me


The Mississippi writer William Faulkner was a symbolist of the first order. What he was writing about was not always what he was writing about. For example, in the famous story, “The Bear,” he winks magically about things both being and not being what they seem. The old grizzly himself, Ben, is more than just a bear. Most commentators think of him as an embodiment of the wilderness itself, representing all that is wild and free. I suspect Old Ben was intended to embody more than that, though.

One scene in the story has 10-year old Ike, who wants more than anything to lay eyes on the old denizen of the woods, has been place on a stand by Sam Fathers where he may possibly get a glimpse of the bear. Sam is half Chickasaw and half African, a master woodsman who has become a mentor for the kid. Sam leaves Ike alone on the stand for a long time. While there, the boy suddenly feels that he is being watched. It is a hair-raising experience. He knows deeply within himself that the old bear is observing him.

When Sam arrives late in the day he says, “You didn’t see him, did you?” Ike replies that he did not but that he was aware of his presence. To this, Sam simply says, “He done the looking.” Astonished, Ike asks, “You mean he knows me?”

That is a poignant moment on both the literal and symbolic level. Literally, many of us have had the eerie experience of feeling watched when there was no one around. But on the symbolic level, it may depict Ike’s discovery that God (some would call it the spirit of the wilderness) is aware of him. That is a profound, life-changing discovery for all of us, that we are known by deity, and it certainly matures the kid. I would call it a salvation experience, for shortly after that moment, Ike, with gun in hand, does see Old Ben up close and personal. Yet he cannot shoot.

Sam Fathers has no words to explain to the boy why he could not pull the trigger, but Ike’s older relative tries to by reading him Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” explaining that he could not bring himself to destroy the thing that had put him in touch with himself so earnestly and intensely. When the older relative asks him if he understands that the bear represented love and honor and compassion and sacrifice, as well as the will and hardihood to survive, Ike says yes. He understands.

I think Faulkner wanted his reader to understand that, too. Although I do not think a Christian worldview informed the story in any specific way, I do believe that the compounding history of Christian thought in Western literature led the word-drunk Mississippian to symbolize God by way of an old three-toed bear. Thus, I see “The Bear” not just as an initiation story, but truly a story of conversion.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Fun at the Park


Historic Washington State Park offers two trial reenactments at various times throughout the year. One concerns the 1844 trial of Henry Skaggs for the murder of William Oaks and the other depicts the 1880 trial of Sidney McFadden for poisoning his wife. On the dates of the events, registrants start their evening at Williams Tavern Restaurant at the park for a historic “country cooking” dinner, after which they go to the courthouse for the show. In the case of the 1844 trial, they go to the 1836 courthouse and for the 1880 trial they walk over to the 1874 courthouse. Both buildings have been authentically restored. A calendar of events is posted on the park’s web site, along with instructions for getting registered.

The Skaggs trial reveals that Henry, apparently in his cups, showed up uninvited to a dinner at his “friend” William Oaks’ house. He, a married man himself, apparently had a crush on Oaks’ wife Elizabeth and Oaks knew it and yelled for Skaggs to go away as he neared the house. He did not go away and William Oaks ended up with a bullet through his chest. Skaggs claimed Oaks drew on him but credible testimony at the trial asserted that Oaks never carried a gun on his person. The historic verdict was guilty but many modern juries find him innocent.

The McFadden trial is a bit more complex with a larger bevy of witnesses. The historic truth was that Sidney wanted to get rid of his wife, Easter, so he could take up with one Martha Smith, known as a strumpet. But, during the trial, doubt is cast upon that motivation. Even the owner of the plantation where he worked testified that Sidney’s greatest fault was going on to new tasks too quickly. He thought he was hardly capable of murder—unless drunk.

Members of the audience are selected for jury duty in both reenactments and the actors who play the prosecutors find it difficult to get a verdict of guilty. So, after thanking the participants for their service as jurors, the judge has the historical verdict read and sentences the guilty man to death by hanging. The last words from the judge in both reenactments are, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

 I have been type-cast as the judge in both trials and have a lot of fun pontificating. The park’s chief interpreter plays the defense attorney in both trials and one of his staff members plays the prosecutor in both. We have better court records for the McFadden trial. We know, for example, that Col. Dan Jones was the defense attorney and our interpreter goes to the trouble of arranging his hair and whiskers to resemble the Col. (Dan Jones was a very influential citizen during his time and was also a strong benefactor for James Black, inventor of the Bowie knife.)

The best parts in both dramas are those of the accused. The park employee who plays Henry Skaggs is my favorite, the way he becomes almost simultaneously belligerent and deeply afraid. The sheriff in the Skaggs trial is an audience favorite as the judge browbeats him and keeps him moving to multiple tasks.

As a local citizen, it is a joy for me to volunteer at such events and to see the audience enjoy a slice of history.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Brakes


Because I was needed to drive Mother to work, I got a license early—at age 12. My just-older brother “taught” me to drive on the back roads of Union County. His predominant teaching method can be captured in his oft-repeated phrase, “Faster, Danny, faster!” So, I learned to navigate two-plank bridges, sandy beds, mud holes and oil field twists and turns very early.

You might say I was a seasoned driver by age 15 when Mother bought a new Buick and wanted to try it out on a trip to visit my other brother in Dayton, Ohio. My driving mentor brother was away at college and could not make the trip with us, so I did all the driving. Like my mentor brother, Mother often felt the need for speed and urged me on beyond the speed limit. Such traveling behavior was beyond my comfort zone, but one wants to please his mother.

On the journey, I noted that the brakes felt mushy and made a noise that was pitched above Mother’s capacity to hear. I mentioned the malfunction sailing through Kentucky and Mother said, well, maybe your brother knows a place in Dayton where we can have the car looked at. And, of course, he did. But not before he diagnostically drove it and had me join him up under the car looking for who knows what and after taking off a wheel for some obscure reason.

Anyway, my brother had to work the next day, but he called his mechanic about 15 or 20 blocks from his home and told the man there that his little brother would be bringing a new Buick by to have the brakes checked out. I found the place, left the car and walked the mile or two back to his cookie-cutter split-level home. It took me awhile to recognize the house because they all looked alike, but luckily, I saw Mother through the picture window looking for me. The walk had made me thirsty, so I drank a lot of root beer with which my brother had stocked his refrigerator, knowing my love for the beverage.

The mechanic told me he would call my brother’s number when they were finished with the work. Well, about the middle of the afternoon, as I was enjoying yet another root beer, he called and said the repair—new brake linings—was done. I lit out, neglecting my need to relieve my bladder. The further I walked, the greater the need, if you know what I mean. When I finally arrived in desperation, I walked into the shop and almost shouted, “Where’s the restroom!” They pointed it out and I wasted no time. My personal brakes worked that day, but they were on the verge of failure.

The mechanic charged $35 for the brake job—Mother had sent $50. The brakes worked fine on the way back to the cookie-cutter, which I recognized just fine this time, because I had memorized some landmarks. When he got home from work, my brother was outraged with the news that it cost $35 for brake linings. He said I should have talked him down. “That’s what we do up here in the north.” Well, I didn’t say this, but I was a 15-year-old southern boy that paid the bill in great relief.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Idol


My wife and I are used to going on long walks every day. During the holidays, however, with family and friends at our house we neglected our habit. What is more, we increased our caloric intake which is what people do on holidays, right? You know: ham, turkey, pies, cake—a familiar drill. So, today when our beloved family and friends went to their own homes, we set out on a nice walk down the hill to the railroad tracks.

A welcome sun made a valiant effort after a soggy Christmas weekend, but it did not do very much to warm us on the way down the hill. On the jaunt back up, however, lo, was that perspiration leaking through my shirt? My wife had said on the way down the hill that I may have to pull her back up. The opposite was true, though, as I trailed her about 10 yards until we got to the top. I confess I was more winded than she was but we were both rosy cheeked and happy with the effort.

Shortly after we arrived back home, a neighbor came to bring me an Episcopal Church Calendar. I love to keep up with where we are in the church year and the churches I am associated with these days do not put much stock in that. Did you know, for example, that January 20 (inauguration day) Fabian, Bishop of Rome and Martyr of Rome is honored? Per internet sources, with the advent of Decius the emperor, the Roman government's toleration of Christianity stopped for a while. Decius ordered leading Christians to prove loyalty to Rome by honoring Roman deities. Christians were obviously against such idolatry. Fabian himself was one of the earliest Christian victims of Decius, being martyred for not honoring Roman deities on January 20, 250. He would not burn incense to them.

I bring that up because I am concerned about idolatry on every level. A cell phone can be as much as an idol as the almighty dollar, nay, even an addiction. I have seen people escape into the electronic universe so deeply that normal conversation cannot occur. The phenomenon recalls Jonathon Swift’s “flappers” in Gulliver’s Travels, those dutiful servants whose job it was to flap their abstracted intellectuals on the ears when someone wanted to converse with them. Similarly, people can get so deeply involved in politics and the reporting thereof that all things political most assuredly become idols. And, heaven forbid that a citizen in our republic would venerate a political figure so highly as to make him or her an idol!

Anyway, a walk down and back up a hill can put us in touch with what is real about life. Seeking health and peace requires considerable work—work that can be rewarded not only with a spurt of endorphins, but with a culminating awareness of historical fact: refusing to bend the knee to the idol of state can bring martyrdom, but it can also bring freedom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Journalism


The “scop” or “bard” in Germanic culture (including Anglo-Saxon) went about entertaining and enlightening with voice and lute. The stories they sang were often based on truth, but embellished to flatter the head of the clan or some high-ranking hero. They were professionals, receiving gifts from the nobility in direct proportion to the entertainment quality of their songs. The singer of Beowulf was an early such entertainer-enlightener and Chaucer was a later medieval version. I believe Chaucer lost the lute. They were early “journalists” who most assuredly had a point of view. As a one-time journalist myself, I know what it means to strive for objectivity. When I first started, I wanted to present, as Joe Friday used to say, just the facts and nothing but the facts. But I soon discovered that objectivity is next to impossible for me because I have a firm point of view, namely, that of holding to certain immutable absolutes. So, as I look back on some of my longer news stories, I find a distinct bias towards the Christian worldview. I got by with it because I lived and wrote in an area where many shared that worldview.

Today, journalism is changing rapidly, so we must strive to be particularly astute in discerning the worldview behind what is being written or said. Without looking at the television, I can guess what network or cable brand is behind the “reporting.” Blatant bias is becoming the norm. Thus, social media! But even these outlets bring non-objective bias and sometimes downright phony stories. Twitter can capture utterances straight from the horse’s mouth, but there are worldview issues in play in such cases as well. I have noticed that people tweet and retweet elements from cyberspace that suit their own often narrow take on the news.

It is easy to find things you agree with but not easy to examine why you agree with them. Lazy “research” is the kind that leads to the fore-imagined outcome. For me, the best way to draw a conclusion about news is to evaluate it in the light of absolutes. If a story is wishy-washy, it is often designed for a political purpose. If it is rigid, it is likely to be dogma. If the story has an angry tone it is probably condemnatory rather than persuasive, saying, in effect, “You make me mad, therefore you are wrong.”

There are real reasons and “good” reasons. Often, journalists with a strong non-objective point of view give you an abundance of “good” reasons for their conclusions while striving to hide the real reasons. People do that kind of thing in relationships all the time. “I went fishing because I wanted to bring home some fish for supper.” That is a good reason. The real reason may be something else altogether. “I go to church because I want to serve the Lord.” That is a good reason. The real reason may be something else altogether. Journalists should be up front and open, giving real reasons and sticking to the facts.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Acquire


People think I love books. I do appreciate what is in some of them but with a few exceptions the physical book means little or nothing to me. You would call me a liar if you saw my book-laden dwelling place. I don’t love the things, though, I just don’t want to get rid of them because I may want to go back to facts, stories and beautiful ideas some of them contain.

Everyone does not understand that. One time when I was an academic dean at Southern Arkansas University, a well-tanned, outdoorsy type man with his hair slicked down sauntered into my office with a box of books under each arm. “Dean Ford?” he queried. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Sir, them people over there in that building yonder told me you knew everything there was to know about books. I acquired these books at an estate sale in Hot Springs. I was wanting you to tell me how much they are worth.”

“I’m sorry; I am not an expert on the value of books. I won’t be able to help you.”

“Well, them people over there said you was a real genius when it come to books and I was just wanting you to give me some ballpark figure as to the worth of these here books I acquired up yonder in Hot Springs.”

“The people in the administration building are mistaken. I do not know anything about the value of old books. I’m sorry.” Then the man put the boxes down on my desk and pulled a few copies out. Flakes of yellow paper flew and I could see that bugs had feasted on some of the volumes and that some had years-old mucus tracks decorating the cover. “Lookee here at these here ones I acquired up there in Hot Springs. They are over a hundred years old. Reckon what a feller could get for books like this. I ain’t going to tell you what I paid for them. I just want you to give me a figure so I can see if I come out alright on the deal.”

“Well, I, I, I don’t have any way of knowing the value of those books. I doubt that they have much value, since the authors are not major names.”

“Well, Dean Ford, if you yourself was going to buy these here books I acquired up there in Hot Springs, how much would you give me for them.”

“Nothing. I do not want the books. As you see, I have plenty of books. Perhaps you could take them over to the library—that building right over there. Ask for Mr._____________, the head librarian. He may be able to give you some estimate of their worth.”

The persistent acquirer of books finally left and soon I got a call from Mr._____________ at the library. I cannot write here what he said to me. Suffice it to say that he did not wish to acquire the books for the library. Especially since he adjudged them worthless. I found myself using the word “acquire” a lot the rest of the day.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Let Him Go


“Swilley, you can’t march,” said the Seabee drill instructor.

“I know it,” he replied, but got by without that difficult skill, because he was a great craftsman, taking carpentry to the level of art. The Seabees were lucky to have him and they knew it. After World War II, Loy Swilley told many stories of wartime activities down in “them islands,” off New Zealand, where he and his crew built many needful structures for airfields. He told of narrow scrapes with enemy bombs and strafing.

When the war was over, he heard from a fellow El Dorado Seabee that his old girlfriend’s husband had died. Loy was an older Seabee, having gone into the service at almost 40 after a painful divorce. That old girlfriend was my mother, Pearl. I was six when he came courting. Mother was pregnant with me when my father died. My brother Curtis was 5 when our father died and 11 when Loy came courting. Mother thought Loy was a door-to-door salesman. Not realizing he had come courting, after about an hour, she asked what he did for a living. “I drive nails,” he replied and Mother realized he intended to rekindle what had started in high school. Rekindle it did.

When Mother told us of her intent to marry him, Curtis was not happy, having known his real father. I was tickled because I felt uncomfortable explaining the absence of a father to my friends. I said, “I am going to call him Daddy.” Curtis said he was going to call him Pop and that I had better use that name for him as well. He said it firmly. So, Pop it was. Later we found out that he did not care for that designation since the younger Seabees in his unit called him that, but he never complained about it.

Curtis kept his distance but I developed a jocular relationship with him. I outgrew Pop very rapidly. Once when we went to the barbershop together, the barber said, “You did good on that one, Swilley.” Pop merely replied, “Yep, he is a big one.” I liked that response very much. I passed for anomalous blood kin from then on.

As to the jocularity we developed, it started when his fellow carpenters would call the house asking for Bug. That was his nickname because of the rapid way he traversed the job sites. I would yell out, “Telephone, Bug!” And soon I started calling him that on a regular basis. He grinned at it, so I continued the appellation. In response, he called me Kid. Soon, I began to return that to him, referring to him as Kid. So, he answered, whether I called him Bug or Kid.

Another name he had for me was Wart, and sometimes You Bloomin’ Blasted Wart. I guess I earned that designation by being more present in his and Mother’s lives that he preferred. When I told them I was going into the service, Mother did not want me to do that and got emotional. Pop said three words that settled it and made all the difference in my life, “Let him go.” He meant that in more than one sense.